Berry checked the flight information and calculated the numbers.

She was travelling at thirty-six thousand feet over Russia, at five hundred and forty-three miles an hour.

It was minus eighty-three Fahrenheit outside.

The cabin was pressurised to eight thousand feet.

At this altitude, there would be twenty-five per cent less oxygen than at sea level.

If the cabin lost pressure then there was a risk of hypoxia at around eleven thousand feet, reducing the alveolar oxygen tension in the lungs and subsequently the brain, causing slow thinking, loss of consciousness, and eventually death.

She sucked on a banana Jujyfruit. Her breathing was steady. The pressure had made her ears pop only once.

She calculated that there was an acceptable zero point five percent chance of hypoxia.

Two cans of Hype energy drink and she was wide-awake, frantically explaining the rules of Atari Shock to Sarah, who hadn’t actually asked to hear them. She sat quietly, staring at the small television screen in the back of the seat.

Berry felt like she hadn’t spoken to a human being for a very long time, and apart from the phone call, she hadn’t.

Her laptop was open on the small seat table. They were flying business class. There was in-flight Wi-Fi.

“Each player starts with 1000 kudos points. This is split by the player into five game-play categories; money, influence, drugs, guns, and random. Respect and status are earned by total hours of game play, and the more you have, the higher up the world leader board you climb.”

Sarah smiled and tried to indicate that she was more interested in the in-flight movie. George Peppard was kissing Holly Golightly. George was a fast mover. Berry wasn’t getting the hint.

“Everyone’s after the top spot. The top twenty positions are valuable real estate,” she continued between chugs of energy drink. “The best players get extra points for the next game and can move on to become a super-pimp. Now, the super-pimp…”

“How often do you play this thing?” interrupted Sarah, realising that Berry was likely to keep talking all of the way to Japan.

“Well, always. I’m always playing,” she shrugged.

Sarah sat up. “You’re logged in now?”

“Course.”

“Go on then, what’s happening?”

She calmly tapped a few keys. “We’ve just lost a great player. One of the best. No one is in the mood for war.”

Sarah nodded, feeling like she was missing the point. “Do a lot of people play then?”

“About seven million at any one time, but there’s no guarantee they’re actual people. Could be bots.”

“Bots?”

“You know, fake accounts. Little programmes that hoover up data like fruit flies.” Berry gave the conversation a slight pause and then continued undeterred. “So, you can live out your fantasies…”

“As long as your fantasies involve drugs, guns and gambling, right?” interrupted Sarah.

“Yeah, but if Atari Shock’s not your thing, there are other games out there that might float your boat? Mostly fantasy MMOs. I’m Splendour the trader in Silk Road. An Asmodian assassin called QueenFly in Aion. And a Night Elf called Melissa in Warcraft.”

“How do you find the time to play all these games?”

Berry rolled the Jujyfruit around her mouth. “You make the time.”

“Couldn’t you invent a game where you can be something nice, like a really good painter or a celebrity chef?”

Berry smiled with what was more of a grimace and lowered her head.

Sarah thought she’d finally won a moment of peace and drifted back to the movie. Before she could relax there was an abrupt change of gear and Berry kept talking.

“Now, the super-pimp is all-powerful. Everyone is out to do over the super-pimps, even people that you think are in your clan. So, to stay on top, you got to stay awake and stay online. Snooze you lose. When you’re offline you can’t respond. Sitting duck, mate. In player-safe mode, you’re only as good as the co-ordinates you pre-programme. You really need to fend off attacks with bribes or have higher gun points if it comes to a shoot out. Or get the clan together and gank ’em. Gank ’em good.”

“Gank ’em good?” Sarah repeated the words, trying them out for herself.

Berry smiled. “Now you’re getting it.”

Sarah really wasn’t getting it.

“I’m in player-safe mode right now, so I get updates on who’s doing what. I’m not able to attack or trade. It’s a bit like autopilot. I’m reading the thief forums about how this player called The Immortal got totally shafted. We’re old sparring partners. He’s been in my clan for the last forty-three games.”

“How do you know he’s a he?”

“Huh?”

“The Immortal? Could be a woman?”

Berry sniffed. “I just always thought of him as a he, with an avatar name like The Immortal. Only a guy would call himself that, don’t you think?”

“Could be a bot?” suggested Sarah, trying to be helpful.

“He’s definitely not a bot.” Berry took a gulp of Hype energy drink.

Sarah nodded with an uneasy smile. “So you don’t know who any of these people are?”

“No one knows who anyone is, but that just adds to the fun because you could be playing with anyone from anywhere in the world. The player could be any age, any sex or any tribe. That’s the point of the game; even the condemned and the executioner can be on the same team, know what I’m saying?”

Sarah nodded, vacantly.

She had no idea what Berry was saying.

“The Immortal must have fallen asleep because according to these stats he was saved by a player called Hotei, then he did nothing for about three hours. Everyone jumped on him while he was just floating around, being a dick, including me I’m not ashamed to say. When the weakest dog is down, the pack are quick to sacrifice one of their own. Now, there’s a massive super clan after him. Biggest the game has ever seen.” 

She was surfing the sugar high, chatting at an airspeed equivalent to the plane. 

“After twenty-three hours of gaming he was totally zeroed, out of drug money points; influence, respect, guns, utterly pwned. Now, a good player would have hidden some of their inventory in a cash stash.”

“A cash stash?”

“This is risky because other players can find your stash and raid it, even trap bait it if they’re good enough.” She popped another Jujy. Asparagus Bundle. “You still with me?”

“I’m with you.” Sarah checked her watch.

They had been in the air for barely three hours. She pulled a polite, uncomfortable face, unsure what else to say.

Berry didn’t need to be asked twice. “There are myths of shit hot inventory items hidden on the platform. These inventory items are the big prize. The most precious items that you can carry. No one has found them yet. We still don’t even know what they are. Probably a sword. Cool, huh?”

Sarah was completely lost. The in-flight movie flickered. George Peppard was standing in the rain, looking pathetic. The soggy cat was hiding under a box. Holly Golightly was being passive-aggressive again.

“What’s going to happen to The Immortal?” asked Sarah.

Berry composed herself, curious as to whether Sarah was genuinely interested. She compared the risk factor against the alternatives and calculated that it was best just to keep talking. “He’s on the run. When he settles I’ll have him killed.”

Sarah couldn’t help herself from letting out a little shocked laugh. “You can do that?” She was beginning to get the ruthlessness of the game and didn’t think it sounded like a game at all.

For the serious player, there was nothing fun about Atari Shock.

If it was a game, then it was a game of life and death.

“Sure I can do that. Can’t leave any weak links in the chain. We’ll share the co-ordinates and set him up for a takedown. That’s if the super clan don’t get him first. I’m sure he’ll be back though. He’s too good not to be back. Probably has a cash stash somewhere in game time, or he’ll borrow points from a loaner.”

The cabin lights dimmed.

An alarm pinged in the distance.

The safety belt sign illuminated.

Berry hadn’t unfastened hers since take off.

Sarah clicked her belt into place. “You can get a loan?”

“If you’re killed then you start again at the bottom of the leader board, which is basically like bankruptcy. Or you can re-set your wealth if you borrow points, but this is a bit dodge city, ‘cos if you borrow from a loaner then they have a say over what you do with your points, who you give them to, what you buy or trade, and they can take stuff from you whenever they like.”

“You’re their bitch?” smirked Sarah.

Berry laughed. “Now you’re getting it. You know, if you want to give it a go I can get you a buffed up avatar from a gold farmer on eBay? It’ll be fucked and loaded?”

There was a commotion from the air stewards’ bay; a raised voice, just enough panic to betray a sense of control.

A steward walked swiftly down the aisle towards them.

“Miss Clarkson?” He was trembling. “Miss Clarkson?” He checked the seat number next to Sarah. 

“That’s me,” she answered, still wondering what fucked and loaded meant.

“Your other passengers require immediate attention.”

She turned and spoke Mandarin to a man sitting behind them. It was the limousine driver. He immediately unbuckled and followed the air steward.

“I’ll be right back.” Sarah excused herself with a dutiful smile.

Berry pulled an awkward smile at the missed movie reference. Other passengers? She thought she was the one? Feeling a conflicted sensation in her stomach, Berry wondered who the other gamers were. She’d been enjoying all of the attention and wasn’t keen to share the limelight.